Letter from the Editors: Press freedom and the importance of distinguishing opinions from facts

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Image courtesy of The Hilltop Monitor.

A number of the opinion articles recently published on The Hilltop Monitor have been inflammatory amongst our readership. Individuals have commented on the articles both on the website and on the Monitor’s social media, questioning the factual accuracy of the pieces, asserting that the opinions should not have been published and questioning the judgment of the editors who oversaw the process.

As the chief editors of this publication we find it necessary to respond to these statements and iterate both the importance of free media and the distinction between opinions and facts.

Within the United States, the freedom of the press is an inalienable right protected by the First Amendment. This mandate proclaims that no law shall be made prohibiting the free exercise of the press and enshrines journalism as an integral force for change in the nation.

The value of journalism has been proven again and again in American society and the impacts of news-reporting can be seen in our everyday life – despite the reality that journalists are often forgotten or belittled in the process.

Consider the example of Edward Snowden, a well-known whistle-blower who leaked information from the U.S. government to reveal that the NSA collects data on millions of U.S. citizens. Six years after the fact, Snowden is still living in Moscow, exiled from the U.S. and guaranteed to face espionage charges should he ever return.

The name Snowden will go down in history, the man immortalized as a figure of rebellion against an unlawful system. And yet, the actions of Snowden would’ve been nothing without the aid of Glenn Greenwald, an American attorney and journalist who risked everything to trust an anonymous source in late 2012 – leading to him eventually breaking the story on the U.S. government’s illegal surveillance practices.

Few of us would recognize Greenwald’s name, and that is because journalism is, in essence, a behind-the-scenes profession involving great risks for few rewards. The position of the journalist is such that every time they publish an article they are submitting themselves to the mercy of their readership; should their statements be proven to be false the journalist’s reputation is destroyed, if their claims are true they receive little glory and are allowed simply to continue the work they have started.

The reality is that journalists put themselves on the line to challenge authority, question assumptions and clarify the obscure. These actions require bravery and are often met with resistance from the powerful elite – those whose narrative has been challenged.

On the campus of William Jewell College such challenges have been made by the writers of the Monitor, including: a summary of incidences indicating a need for increased transparency, an examination of the limitations of Jewell’s curriculum and even a direct call to action about the College’s enrollment numbers.

These challenges comment on the norms set by the College within which we all operate. To address these requires courage on the part of the writer who is uniquely positioned as both an employee of Jewell – as the institution both funds and, technically, publishes the Monitor – and as a student who is reliant on scholarships from the College, housing in the dorms and a myriad of other services.

And yet, our writers persist.

As a college newspaper one of the Monitor’s main functions is to amplify student voices. As such, we value opinion articles as highly as news pieces and make every effort to present thought-provoking commentary to the community. We even have a section on our website dedicated to opinion articles, each of which are clearly titled “Opinion: ___” to distinguish them from other pieces.

As the College’s official publication of record, The Monitor is the medium through which students can broadcast their opinions to the entire campus community. All students are given this opportunity, whether they choose to accept it or not – Monitor staff members can choose to write an opinion article as their weekly assignment, and readers can submit letters to the editor which will be reviewed for publication by emailing monitor@william.jewell.edu at any time.

These authors can utilize this platform to express their own personal views or present controversial ideas to confront the community and spark conversation. And, when we transitioned into our roles as chief editors, one of our primary goals was to ensure that diverse opinions were represented on the Monitor, advocating a variety of viewpoints and topics to be explored.

We strive to promote the breadth, profundity and diversity of opinions on the Monitor, but this does not mean we facilitate the reckless and standardless publication of any opinion that crosses our desks. We do not publish any material – opinion or otherwise – that contains clear factual inaccuracies, instances of libel or slander or material that violates the College’s honor code.

While we may make suggestions and recommendations to opinion writers about how to strengthen content or ways to address likely counterarguments, we have no interest in fundamentally changing any opinion that falls within the legal and institutional standards.

The Monitor’s presence on campus is not – and certainly should not be – tied to an ideological, moral or political agenda. The sole purpose of opinion writing is to challenge practices, ideas or people and to transgress (sometimes popularly held) beliefs and viewpoints with the goal of informing readers with an unfamiliar perspective.

The Monitor is not an advocacy organization. We will not filter out opinions that could be assumed as morally questionable, regardless of our personal stances on the matter.  

Furthermore, as “The Critical Thinking College ®,” this campus would be remiss to allow or encourage the newspaper to censor opinions. An opinion piece may be written by an individual, but the conceptual purpose of making it publicly accessible is to spark public discussion – to promote lively, involved debate about the contents involved, with the goal of seasoning the perspective of every engaged party. It would be an absolute disservice to the community – and a failure of representation – if we filtered every single article we published through one defined lens of presumed ideological correctness.

What we must recognize – as members of this critically thinking community – is that when faced with an opinion we despise one has several choices. The truth of the matter is that, unlike with facts, we are able to dissent and ignore opinions relatively inconsequently. However, it is crucial to understand that honest opinion articles provide one with a window into the mindset and perspective of the author, read in collection they offer insight into a culture and allow one to pass judgments on a community.

This knowledge empowers the reader and elevates one to a position from which they can empathetically create change. Understanding the mindset of the person with whom one disagrees is an invaluable tool, it teaches one exactly how to win a debate, change a mind or – over time – even change a culture.

Alternatively, one could react to an unwanted opinion with hatred and spite, going after the article’s author and editors rather than the ideas presented. Unfortunately, this is the course of action that many within our readership have taken in recent weeks.

Choosing to act in this manner does nothing but further social divisions and minimize the potential for constructive dialogue and change to occur within the community.

As editors of the Monitor we have made a commitment to challenge both the policies and structures of the institution, and the assumptions and biases held by students. This means that sometimes we publish articles that are unpopular among our viewers. Yet, a piece’s popularity does not dictate an article’s merit nor warrant condemnation for its author.

Hence, our support for our writers and commitment to the principle of free media – including the publication of controversial opinions and challenges to authority – is unwavering. Public criticism and disdain should not be recognized as an authority on a journalist’s integrity, and these judgments are not the means by which we, as editors, set the standards of this publication.

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